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Societal Blind Spots As Barriers To Health Care Reform

Our market-based system breeds costs, not restraint. And none of the various multi-payer proposals being considered in Congress have effective methods to contain health care costs.
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History tells us that societal blind spots are common throughout the centuries from one society, culture or continent to another. An example in the late 1700s involves the first cancer hospital in the world. It was established in Reims, France, but was forced to leave the city in 1779 because of the public's fear of contagion -- most people then believed that cancer was spread by parasites.

Fast forward to the current debate in the United States over how to reform our increasingly unaffordable and dysfunctional health care system. Do we have any blind spots as this debate boils over such fundamental issues as the roles of the free market vs. that of government, and whether health care is just another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market?

Based on the content of the debate swirling around these questions and how the mainstream media are covering the story, we have two major blind spots in American culture today concerning health care -- continuing denial that markets fail the public interest in health care, and that market failure leads to serious adverse economic, social and moral consequences. These two blind spots are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

This recent statement by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) illustrates the extent of our ideological blind spots about our market-based system. Commenting on a report by government analysts that health care spending will grow by about seven percent a year to a total of $4.3 trillion in 2017, he has this to say: "These are not signs that the health care market has failed. In fact -- and it is crucial to understand this -- they are the predictable results of vast distortions imposed on the market over decades. The government is the single greatest contributor to this problem."

But markets in health care do not work the way they may in other sectors of the economy. Here there is much less competition than market advocates proclaim, extensive consolidation within health care industries, wide latitude to set prices at what the traffic will bear, and pervasive conflicts of interest throughout the system encouraging over-utilization of wasteful, unnecessary and even harmful care.

The wreckage of markets in health care is all around us. Private insurers pursue their profits by many strategies to exclude or limit coverage of the sick. Their goal is to keep their medical loss ratios (the industry's term for payments for medical care) below 80 percent, whereby they can retain at least 20 percent of premium revenue for overhead, profits and returns to shareholders. Whether hospitals, HMOs, nursing homes or mental health centers, investor-owned care has been documented by many studies to be more expensive and of poorer quality than not-for-profit care. The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 has proven itself to be a bonanza for the drug and insurance industries. The government was prohibited from negotiating the prices of drugs as the Veterans Administration does so effectively, and the costs of drugs (the problem the bill was supposed to address) continue to surge upwards. Meanwhile the unregulated marketplace allows widespread profiteering through overuse in such areas as imaging centers, many of which are owned by the very physicians ordering the tests.

All this is predictable and of no surprise. Joseph Stiglitz, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Economics and former chief economist at the World Bank, has this to say about markets: "Markets do not lead to efficient outcomes, let alone outcomes that comport with social justice. As a result, there is often good reason for government intervention to improve the efficiency of the market. Just as the Great Depression should have made it evident that the market does not work as well as its advocates claim, our recent Roaring Nineties should have made it self-evident that the pursuit of self-interest does not necessarily lead to overall economic efficiency."

Our market-based system breeds costs, not restraint. Despite the claims of their advocates, all of the various multi-payer proposals being considered in Congress, intended as they are to preserve a dying private insurance industry, have no effective methods to contain health care costs. With by far the most expensive system in the world, we ration care based on ability to pay. Despite the money we throw at health care, the quality and outcomes of our care compares poorly with many industrialized countries around the world that spend far less than we do.

And our societal blind spot extends as well to the social and moral consequences of our pro-market policies. As the income gap widens between the rich and poor and as the middle class falls into increasingly difficult straits in affording health care, our sense of social solidarity continues to erode. Medical costs are now responsible for 62 percent of personal bankruptcies, most of whom were insured at the onset of their illness or accident. All this while our supposed safety net, already frayed, further deteriorates in the face of increasing federal and state deficits.

So it is now time to take off our blinders and recognize these problems for what they are. The government needs to play a greater role in health care, starting with a public system of financing that incorporates and builds on the strengths of our private delivery system. Single-payer financing along the lines of the Conyers bill (H.R. 676) is an essential first step in the reform of U. S. health care for all Americans.

Whether we yet realize it or not, future generations will look back and wonder how we don't see past our blind spots, in the same way as we find it hard to imagine the blind spot about cancer in France more than two centuries ago.

Adapted from The Cancer Generation: Baby Boomers Facing a Perfect Storm, 2009, with permission from the publisher Common Courage Press.

John Geyman, M.D. is the author of The Cancer Generation and Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry is Dying, and How We Must Replace It, 2009 by John Geyman. With permission of the publisher, Common Courage Press

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